It only takes 20 minutes to drive from her home in Itsoseng, a sprawling informal settlement of makeshift wooden houses and dirt roads on the outskirts of Johannesburg, to the wide lawns and large glass and steel buildings of Monash South Africa. But for 23-year-old Lebo Nnoi Patience Sekhotkla, who next March will become the first member of her family to graduate from college, that drive symbolizes a far longer and more arduous journey.
“If you educate one person, you educate the whole family, and the whole community becomes transformed.”
Like so many people living on the margins, Lebo’s parents were forced to constantly uproot their growing family as they struggled desperately to find work. Soon after she was born, Lebo’s father lost his job in the mines of Lesotho, and for the next decade and a half, Lebo would live intermittently with her grandmother or other relatives in various towns across the country. Her father suffered from schizophrenia and would disappear for months, sometimes years, leaving her mother, Julia, the sole breadwinner for her three young daughters. “It was a very tough time,” Lebo remembers. “With all the moves and being in different schools, I began doubting myself and who I was.” Lebo was 17 when her mother lost her job on a farm and moved her family to the settlement.
Today, their two-bedroom house, painted bright blue and bordered by flowerpots and a well-tended vegetable garden, still has no electricity or running water.
The philosophy of Ubuntu, which literally translates into “human-ness” but reflects a much broader spirit of interconnectedness and mutual caring, is deeply imbedded in South African culture. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “You can’t be human all by yourself.” Throughout her life, Lebo has been the beneficiary of a community of caring adults. The Ubuntu philosophy— what you do impacts the rest of the world—is what drives her to empower others.
After completing secondary school, Lebo gathered up her courage to apply to Monash South Africa. At the time, she did not meet its requirements and was turned down. Seeing her distress, a local pastor and his wife connected her with a community-based organization called Oasis, where she regained her selfconfidence, learned computer skills and then became a teacher herself. “It was the first time I realized I could make a difference,” Lebo recalls. Still determined to further her education, she again applied to Monash South Africa and in the fall of 2011 was accepted as a bursary (needs-based scholarship) student. “It was the beginning of life for me,” she says.
During her first year at Monash South Africa, Lebo threw herself into a whirlwind of academic studies but also found time to participate in the campus-sponsored Saturday School tutoring program for local youth. The following year, she became the liaison officer between the campus and nearby Cosmo City, attending community meetings and representing the campus as a local partner. Recognizing Lebo as a rising leader, the students elected her Community Outreach Officer for the Student Association in 2014, where she helped manage the work of over 800 student volunteers on campus. The small stipend she was paid, in addition to her bursary, meant Lebo could begin to financially support her family. She was also laying the groundwork to further improve young lives.
One day over lunch in the cafeteria, Lebo began talking with two close friends about why so many young people were dropping out of school. “We have young people who fail not because they aren’t clever but because they aren’t motivated,” she explains. “They don’t understand that good grades really mean something.” Lebo, who felt fortunate to have had loving and trusted adults encouraging her at pivotal times in her life, wanted her learners to have the same opportunities. The decision was made. Lebo and her friends would launch a motivational program for ninth-graders called “Tomorrow Starts Today,” designed to give these young learners the life skills, confidence and career guidance they need to stay in school, apply to university and contribute to their communities.
But for the new program to truly succeed, Lebo knew she needed resources and support, which is where Monash South Africa came in. The campus agreed to provide bus transportation for the students to come to campus, full access to its classrooms and computers, plus career counseling and a free lunch. “But more than that,” Lebo says, “the kids who come here see what a campus looks like, and it gets them thinking that maybe they could come here too.”
Clearly, her students have gotten the message. “I’ve learned that without education, you are nothing,” says 14-year-old Dimakatso. Then she added, “Watching Lebo, I can see that I can help change other people’s lives too.” During its first two years, the program will have impacted the lives of 90 disadvantaged youth.
Supporting the community efforts of hundreds of students like Lebo is at the heart of the institution’s mission. “Community engagement is part of our DNA,” says Esther Benjamin, CEO of Monash South Africa. “We see it as a vital part of the educational and student experience here—to connect and engage our students with the communities around us.” Nearly one-third of the student body chooses some form of volunteerism, and every student has an internship or a community-based experience before he or she graduates.
“These activities change the students’ mindset,” says Craig Rowe, the Director of Engagement. “After working in the community, they don’t see the barriers, they see the opportunities. We are simply the cheerleaders.”
Since it was founded in 2001, Monash South Africa has planted deep roots in the nearby communities, strengthening its network of relationships with local leaders and working with nearly 60 partner organizations to expand opportunities for young people. Last year alone, its students completed 15,000 hours of tutoring, benefitting students in 50 schools.
For Lebo, the only way to change conditions for impoverished families is through education. “I’ve seen how my own experience has impacted my sisters and my cousins and how much more motivated they are to continue their studies,” she says. “It has made me realize that if you educate one person, you educate the whole family, and the whole community becomes transformed.” Lebo believes that the huge social and economic challenges facing South Africa are tied to lack of education. “Only education can drive social change,” Lebo says. But she admits that such transformations may also require the enduring love of willful mothers.
Julia has the same breathtaking smile as her daughter, and a joyfulness that clearly lifts up those around her. But when she talks about Lebo and what she has accomplished, Julia speaks quietly, and sometimes tears roll down her cheeks. “Whenever Lebo said she wanted to quit school and help support me and her sisters, I yelled at her, ‘No, no, no. I can do this; you must stay in school,’” Julia whispers. “Then I would close the door so she could not see me crying.” Lebo is equally emotional. “My mother, who made so many sacrifices and struggled so hard, is who got me to where I am today,” Lebo says. “What I am doing is what she dreamed to do herself. My graduation, it’s our combined achievement.”
In March 2016, Lebo will walk across the stage at Monash South Africa to receive her psychology degree with a message of love to her mother painted on her graduation cap. She will fix her radiant smile on her family, but hopes as well to see the many teachers, mentors and friends whose support over the years has meant so much. That day, Lebo will also be thinking about how she can use the knowledge and experience she has gained to help many more disadvantaged youth make that same improbable walk across the stage.
After she graduates, Lebo will hand the leadership of “Tomorrow Starts Today” over to her colleagues, and she plans to work for a youthserving organization in the community. But her sights are set on a larger life mission. “I want to be a sister not just to my own sisters,” she says, “but to young people across Africa.” In the meantime, Lebo has developed her own definition of Ubuntu: “Serving others; it’s where growth begins.”